Sunday, September 17, 2006

Freedom of speech is having the right to say what people don't want to hear

As the storm continues to rage over the Pope's recent speech, there is a danger that the violence that occurred over the Danish cartoons may be repeated.

This however is no "clash of civilisations". As the Sunday Times editorial puts it:

The clash of civilisations is not between Christianity and Islam, it is between nations that encourage religious diversity and those which practise religious intolerance. It is between those who favour open debate and those who think free speech is anathema. The Pope may or may not have known what a hornets’ nest he was stirring up. Even if he did, there was nothing inappropriate, within context, in what he said.

The Vatican has said he is very sorry his speech caused such offence to Muslims. That is fine but it should not go further than that. He should certainly not be pushed into withdrawing his remarks. As in the case of the Danish cartoons, Muslim zealots are trying to impose their restrictions of free expression on the West. Mindful as we should be of religious sensitivities, that cannot be allowed to happen.

It is a fair argument to take issue with the Pope's claim that Christianity, unlike Islam is a religion of peace. Such a claim rings hollow when you consider the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. But as long as there is interfaith dialogue, we can challenge such claims.

Sadly, many of the Pope's critics seem to think that interfaith dialogue is about going out of your way not to offend others. Genuine interfaith dialogue if it is to mean anything is about discussing issues of substance, not just about expressing platitudes. This means being open and frank, asking difficult questions, and expressing your religious differences as well as your similarities. By threatening the Pope instead of taking issue his comments, Muslims have merely proved his point.